Directed by Karel Reisz
Written by James Toback
– James Caan as Axel Freed
– Paul Sorvino as Hips
– Lauren Hutton as Billie
[Jonny’s Note: I’ve got a raging, stinking, awful, horrible bloodthirsty headache and this film deserves a better review, but time is of the essence and who knows when I’ll be dead? Enjoy]
Released in 1974 and brimming with off screen cocaine abuse, The Gambler is possibly James Caan’s finest hour. Honestly, with the possible exception of his supporting role in Bottle Rocket as “Mr. Henry,” Caan has never shined as bright as he does here. Well, apparently there is no tape but I’ve got it on good authority that while he was a guest of Hef’s at the Mansion, Caan had a silver platter of enemas and douches delivered to his room. Jimmy plays Axel Freed, a man who seemingly has everything; a professorship at City College teaching English lit (for those nerds out there, he lectures his class on Dostoyevsky. Get it?), a loving mother, a grandfather who’s a bloody billionaire and a super-hottie girlfriend in Lauren Hutton. Plus, he’s got charm, good looks, a serious gambling addiction, he’s good at tennis…
Yeah, so this film is all about addiction. Gambling, as it turns out. Which is ironic since I could almost smell the cocaine wafting through the screen. Again, 1974 and James Caan and James Woods are in the movie. I can’t stop rubbing my tongue on my molars. Anyhow, Axel just loves to fucking gamble. Like, more than you could ever possibly imagine. The opening scene of the film is this painful sequence where he goes in the hole $44,000 to an insanely coked out mob dude named “Hips” (Paul Sorvino). Axlel makes the dumbest bets possible. After dropping forty large on black jack, he walks up to a roulette table and goes “Two thousand on red,” which he quickly loses. He then says, “Two thousand on black.” You do the math. So, he leaves and it is daylight and he has to teach soon. What does he do? No, he doesn’t go home and shave. Axel walks over to a bunch of young black guys shooting hoops, asks who’s the best ball player and bets him $20 to $10 for a game of one on one. Which Axel loses. Quickly.
The next chunk of the movie is concerned with how a man who earns $1500 a month teaching is going to pay back $44,000. The thing is that Hips really likes Axel, and he is not totally prepared to “take a baseball bat to [his] fucking skull.” Hips has some weird notion that because Axel is a literature professor, that he should e treated with a bit more respect than the typical degenerates, who get dispensed with much haste and relish by a goon named Carmine (Rocky’s Burt Young, of course). Hips yells as Axel a lot, but doesn’t really do much to him. Axel eventually convinces his mother to lend him the $44,000, which she very reluctantly gives him. And, instead of paying Hips back, he takes his uber-hot lady friend (who, since she is from Texas, Axle calls, “Rebel Pussy”) to Las Vegas for some hardcore gambling. In a scene that has been subsequently ripped off by The Good Thief, Axel slightly more than doubles his money. Moreover, he has three sure-fire bets in on some college games, and it looks like he is going to be totally free and clear and off any hook. And you can guess what happens next.
Turns out that the three teams he picked (one of which was Harvard, those “Ivy league Faggots”) all choked in the fourth quarter and he owes another bookie $45,000. He pays him in cash, and as the dude is barely out the door, Axel begs him to let him put a $50,000 last minute straight up bet on the Lakers/Sonics game that is starting in fifteen minutes. The bookie balks at first and eventually relents. In what is really one of the best scenes in recent memory, we get to watch as Axel sits in a bathtub listening to the game. I will tell you that the Lakers lose. I will not even attempt to explain what happens on Caan’s face at the exact moment when Seattle beats LA by one point as time expires. Rent the film for this scene alone. Anyhow, once again, Alex cannot pay back Hips.
And what we learn is that, for a gambling junkie, while they might pretend that the end goal is winning, but in reality, it is the thrill, the ride, the “juice.” Think about it. Some Italian-American thugs (headed up by Vic Tayback!!!) are going to break your arms, legs and whatever else is sticking out. You got the cash in your apartment to preserve all limbs and extremities. And you say, “fuck it,” I’m flushing it/shooting it/smoking it/add your own metaphor for “waste” here. If that’s the case, then dude, you is a junkie. All you want is the rush, the never lasting high of “what if?” And that sentiment, that lifestyle, that illness is portrayed beautifully in The Gambler. Plus, all the cocaine that we didn’t see. The 70s really were the golden age of American Cinema.